Ostracise the pot smokers, not jail them

23:00, Jan 09 2013

I have changed my mind about cannabis. I don't think it should be legalised and so normalised – the avowed aim of some lobby groups – but I do accept it's madness to have overflowing jails bursting with its lowest-level dealers and the people they sell to.

The lobby groups are full of hot air and paranoia but low on presentation of facts, however the Justice Ministry has convinced me this week with its statistics on how this minor offending is taking up court time that would be better spent on speeding up justice for serious offenders.

It makes no sense that there are as many cannabis users in jail as there are dealers, or that hundreds of people are jailed for possession of a needle or a pipe.

And there can't be a good reason why having small amounts of cannabis, or smoking utensils, make up roughly half of all drug charges laid by police.

The fact that imprisonment for petty offences like these almost equals the number of people locked up for serious crimes makes the issue a no-brainer and I wouldn't be surprised if many police think so too.

I am not a recreational drug user.


It never appealed to me because I felt I had enough problems already; I was stupid in other ways. But most of the people I knew when I was young were users and I had no problem with it.

Cannabis, and for that matter acid and heroin, were a relatively new thing then, people insisted they were harmless and I believed them.

Time has made me glad of the choice I made. Heavy cannabis use among my former friends didn't do them a power of good in many ways. Some became boring paranoids or conspiracy theorists and a good many more became ill.

There will be more of this.

I'd like to see the statistics on the number of people currently being treated for drug-linked illnesses such as hepatitis C and bladder cancer, and how many people attribute those conditions to their dope use. If people I know are any indication, the numbers would make depressing reading.

Those people may well regret the decisions they made when they were young and thought that somehow they would never reach middle age; it was so far away and the present was so pressing.

But we do get older and are pleased to be alive, even if ageing involves many humiliations and much mordant humour. It still looks better than the alternative.

I wouldn't gloat.

We'll all be felled by something in the end. But when you compare the legal outcomes for cannabis users and alcoholics I suspect there's a degree of inequality.

I don't accept that cannabis and alcohol are equivalent, though.

Most alcohol abusers, I should think, are less likely to progress to using a cocktail of other, more harmful, drugs as well. But prove me wrong.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation rightly points out that statistics on imprisonment and prosecutions show the system is not putting anyone off drug use. Its executive director suggests a mandatory cautionary scheme instead, that would progress toward compulsory treatment. The justice minister is unimpressed.

She probably thinks of how much that would cost, though jail also costs a lot, as does police time.

I don't know what would get people off cannabis use, especially as generations of some families treat it as normal and their children are around it from babyhood.

Information doesn't seem to work on its own: people won't give up what they enjoy now because of what will happen in 20 years.

But the kind of progressive social ostracism that has slowly worked with nicotine smokers could be one way to go.

You look damn silly smoking dope as well, especially when we know the harm it does to you and the people around you, let alone the future health cost and the misery of becoming old and sick.

The Dominion Post